Alex Rice: From CSU to a Natural Resource Conservation Career
A career in restoration
A love for the outdoors led Alex Rice (B.S. ‘17) to get his undergraduate degree at Colorado State University’s Warner College of Natural Resources. That passion led him to his current work as a restoration project manager in Oregon.
As a restoration project manager at the North Fork John Day Watershed Council in Long Creek, Oregon, Rice leads conservation projects in watersheds to benefit water quality and fish habitat. He works in an agricultural area where the economy revolves around ranching and logging.
“The job has allowed me to apply my interest in ecological restoration, plants, and working with agricultural landowners in a very fun, challenging, and fulfilling way,” Rice said. “It requires a lot of looking at things from more than one viewpoint and balancing my own conversationist values with landowners’ agricultural and ranching values and to try to bring folks together to work towards a common goal.”
In the area Rice works, land ownership is split between federal agencies and private landowners, so he leads restoration projects on land owned by either group.
“A lot of my job is seeking out restoration opportunities on private land, and especially in places where I can find restoration actions that are going to benefit the watershed, the ecosystem, the landowner, and the good of the community,” Rice said. “I also get to work with a variety of different organizations including state agencies, federal agencies, other nonprofits, and multiple tribal entities.”
Exploring passions at CSU
Rice credits his start at CSU with setting him on the path to a career in natural resource management.
In 2014 he was deciding what direction to take his education and felt inspired by a deepening connection to the outdoors. He had recently finished a two-year associate degree online and wanted to transfer to a four-year degree program.
“For the first time in my life, I was hiking and skiing. I spent a lot of time cutting firewood with friends and hanging out in the forest. I had an epiphany one day where I decided I always wanted this to be a major part of my life.”
“I chose to minor in ecological restoration because my grandfather was a copper miner who died in a mining accident, and I wanted to do mining reclamation as a way to pick up his legacy,” Rice said.
It turned out to be the right fit. While At CSU, Rice found he was happiest working with plants. He joined the Society for Ecological Restoration Student Association and began to spend time working with plants in the campus greenhouse.
“I think my best memories from CSU are from the greenhouse,” Rice said. “Being surrounded by the plants just felt very positive.”
He began to volunteer with organizations, such as the Wildlands Restoration Volunteers, doing plantings for various restoration projects. The Society for Ecological Restoration and CSU researcher and professor Mark Paschke’s restoration ecology lab provided even more opportunities to do meaningful restoration around Colorado.
In his senior year, Rice became co-president of the Society for Ecological Restoration student chapter and began to plan trips for students to work on restoration projects. With Paschke’s help, the group worked on seeding projects at CSU’s Waverly property and planned a student trip to a ranch in eastern Montana to do riparian tree planting. On the ranch, students worked with private landowners, which Rice notes is a big part of natural resource management conservation in his career and other conservation fields.
“It was a huge foundational experience for me. It really translated into what I do now,” he said.
It was the wealth of ways to get connected to different opportunities and people that led Rice down the path to success. Through working in the student club and with Paschke, Rice found jobs working in the field that provided deep learning experiences.
“It was about a semester’s worth of learning that took place in three or four days out in the field,” Rice said, “These hands-on experiences that were so readily available at CSU were insanely valuable in shaping not only my skill set but the direction I wanted to take with my career.”
The journey to graduate school
To help him prepare for graduate school, Rice participated in a program offered by the college, where he was paired with a graduate student mentor to work on a research project together. He worked with Bethany Avera in faculty member Monique Rocca’s Fire Ecology Lab in the Natural Resource Ecology Lab. He did quality control and assurance on data from a reforestation study that looked at the impacts of various site preparation treatments on seedling growth.
“The program prepared me for what to expect in graduate school, as well as how to articulate my research interests, which really helped me apply to graduate programs,” Rice said.
He also credits faculty member Wilfred Previant with helping him prepare for graduate school.
“While taking Wilfred Previant’s forest vegetation management class, I approached him about some guidance in applying for grad school. He went so far beyond what I could have hoped for in helping me to shape letters of interest and my resume.”
Rice went on to accept a graduate student assistantship at Michigan Tech and complete his Master of Science in forestry. The variety of experiences he had in school, whether volunteering or working, contributed to his journey to graduate school and the work Rice does today. His advice to students is to get experience and to reach across different disciplines in the natural resources field.
“Go into class to learn, decide what you think is cool, and start volunteering, and if you do enough of that, it’s just going to lead to a job, because it’s actually kind of a small world in conservation,” Rice said.
“People get to know you and they get to know your work ethic and your interests, and when you show that you care, they will help you out and sometimes even hire you.”